Land reform: Hopes die hard on battle fields

George Mphela holds a photograph of his father, Amos, who is buried in the cemetery on Pylkop. Amos never believed his sons would inherit the land. (Felix Karlsson, M&G)

George Mphela holds a photograph of his father, Amos, who is buried in the cemetery on Pylkop. Amos never believed his sons would inherit the land. (Felix Karlsson, M&G)

 It started the process of depriving black South Africans of the right to own land in the country of their birth and became one of the cornerstones of apartheid. One of the democratic government’s biggest challenges has been to undo the Act with land reform. But as one black North West farmer has found, the process has also had some unintended consequences.

‘This is our farm. We bought it. Look at this title deed. Look carefully, whose name is there? That is my father’s name,” George Mphela, the oldest son of the late Amos, says passionately, as he points with his right index finger at the title deed he’s holding in his left hand.

The ragged, yellowing document, folded open, has clearly been used a lot. We are standing in the blazing sun next to the family graveyard, further “proof” that this land here in North West belongs to the Mphelas.

The tall, charismatic George, the current patriarch of the Mphelas, carefully folds the title deed and puts it away in his pocket. His is a family with a deep but troubled history with the land. Their battle over generations to stay on the land tells the heart-breaking tale of how black people have been dispossessed.

The Mphelas’ story goes back to 1918, five years after the passing of the Natives Land Act of 1913, the law that was the first attempt by the white government to drive black

people off the land.

Democracy was supposed to herald the return to the Mphelas of what was rightfully theirs, but that has still not happened. And to make matters worse, the Mphelas’ ongoing battle is taking place not only on one piece of land but on two farms, 17km apart.

In 1918, George’s grandfather, Klaas, bought the farm Haakdoornbult on the banks of the Crocodile River near the bushveld town of Thabazimbi in Limpopo. He built it up into a successful cattle farm, with ample land used to cultivate and provide his family with fruit and vegetables.

After Klaas’s death in 1932, his son Amos took over.

But it was never easy for a black man to own a farm in those days. Amos was subjected to considerable duress to sell his farm to the Botha brothers, the owners of a neighbouring farm. The government considered Amos’s farm a “black spot” in an area they believed was meant for the white community. After initially resisting the overtures to “give up your farm”, he was eventually forced to sell it in 1953 but, fortunately for him, he got 50% more than market value.

He never left the farm, but, he took the proceeds from the sale and bought a farm called Pylkop, 17km away in what is now North West. This incensed the government and the new owners of Haakdoornbult.

In 1962, the police raided Amos at night and bulldozed his house, razing his kgotla (meeting) tree, kraals and school. Using the Natives Land Act and the Native Trust and Land Act of 1936, the police forced Mphela off Haakdoornbult and dumped him and his family at Pylkop. Amos and his family had no food or shelter – Pylkop was not as developed as Haakdoornbult.

Amos lived on Pylkop for the remainder of his life – he died in 1996 a depressed and humiliated man. Not even the dawn of democracy two years earlier could rekindle his hopes of regaining his lost farm.

He lies in the graveyard at Pylkop. George speaks in a sombre tone when he tells the story of Amos who died an old man racked by a sense of injustice.

“His usual stoic personality had been eaten up by self-resentment. He always blamed himself that he would die having failed to bequeath to his sons the one thing he treasured the most – land.”

However, after his death, his children decided to seek justice for their late father and opened up restitution claims to regain Haakdoornbult, by then subdivided into four. After a protracted battle the Land Claims Court ordered in 2005 that all four subdivisions of the farm be returned to the Mphelas.

The then Haakdoornbult owners took the matter to the Supreme Court of Appeal, asking whether that would not amount to overcompensation.

The court found that, despite having received a fair market price for Haakdoornbult when it was sold in 1953, the family was not fully and fairly compensated because, in the forced removal, they had lost much more than just the market value of their farm.

Pylkop was dragged into the picture as well. The court felt that the family would be overcompensated if they kept both Pylkop and Haakdoornbult. It therefore ordered the return of 86% of Haakdoornbult to the family.

But the family was not happy with the ruling and went to the Constitutional Court. In 2008 the Constitutional Court finally gave the Mphela family the rights to Haakdoornbult and Pylkop. It found that the state could not claim back Pylkop because it was not compensation to the Mphelas for losing Haakdoornbult – the family had bought it.

But things are never simple. Shortly after that ruling the Mphelas found themselves on the receiving end of a land claim for the 1940-hectare Pylkop. It is rich in minerals like platinum, chrome and iron. It has game too – kudu, wild pig and impala. The Baphalane Ba Ramokoka community, represented by Chief Kgosi Modise Ramokoka, had lodged a restitution claim over Pylkop.

The Baphalane community’s argument was that they had enjoyed the rights over Pylkop even before 1913. In the court papers, they claimed the Mphelas were subject to the authority of the Baphalane tribal authority and, from the day that they were dumped at Pylkop, they only enjoyed a right of occupation, not ownership.

This opened up yet another court battle between the Mphelas and the community, which strained the hitherto cordial relations between them and their tribal leaders.

George says the title deed confirms his assertions – that Amos was the original owner of Pylkop.

“It is absurd really,” he says. “You can’t file a restitution claim against us. Our forefathers are buried here. We have our lives built around this area.”

Starting off as a mere headman responsible for Pylkop, George has upgraded his status to that of a chief since his relationship with the inner council under Ramokoka went sour. George says the relationship deteriorated when he refused to give the chief the royalties he gets from selling plots on Pylkop.

“I don’t see why I must give them the money. This is our land, we have title over it. They can’t control our finances,“ says George.

But Kebu­seditswe Ramokoka, Ramokoka’s mother and also member of the inner council, has promised a fight. In 1998, her late husband, Chief Kgosi Kobete Ramokoka, lodged a large land restitution claim, and it included Pylkop.

“If they say they own this land, my question is: before they were dumped here in 1962, who was owning the area? That is my only question. Tell them to answer that one,” Kebuseditswe says.

She argues that the Mphelas are subject to the Baphalane tribal authority and they must pay royalties to the chief as the legitimate owner of the land they occupy.

The ownership of Haakdoornbult itself is fraught with internal squabbles. Some of the Mphelas don’t recognise George as a chief.

“As a family we have never had a chief. George is not a legitimate chief; he is a fake, an imposter,” says Steve Mphela.

The ripple effect of this squabble is that Haakdoornbult has been abandoned. “I think we will have to sell this farm, or we can farm,” George says dejectedly. “I don’t know, but selling it is a possibility.”

Manqoba Nxumalo

Manqoba Nxumalo

Manqoba Nxumalo is the Mail & Guardian's Eugene Saldanha Fellow for social justice reporting in 2013. Nxumalo started his journalism career at the Swazi Observer, a government-controlled Mbabane-based newspaper, in 2004. The following year he moved to the kingdom's only independent newspaper, Times of Swaziland, where he reported on diverse issues for six years. During this time Manqoba completed a diploma in law at the University of Swaziland while doing court reporting for the newspaper. This experience drove his passion to use journalism as a tool to change the injustices of the world and give a voice to those without one. His work put him at odds with authorities in Swaziland, and in 2011 Manqoba moved to South Africa to continue telling his stories. He has written for a range of local and international publications. Read more from Manqoba Nxumalo


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